Spoken Japanese

 

There is a specific set of sounds used in Japanese speech. Each is either a vowel sound, or a combination of a consonant and vowel, or the sound of the letter n.

JAPANESE LANGUAGE SOUNDS
BA DO HO MI PYA SO
BE FA JA MO PYO TA
BI FE JE MYA RA TE
BO FI JI MYO RE TI
BYA FO JO NA RI TO
BYO GA JYA NE RO WA
CHA GE JYO NI RYA WE
CHE GI KA NO RYO WI
CHI GO KE NYA SA WO
CHI GYA KO NYO SE YA
CHO GYO KYA PA SHA YO
DA HA KYO PE SHE ZA
DE HE MA PI SHI ZE
DI HI ME PO SHO ZO

 

The good news is any given sound is always said the sane way. There is no “I read the book, now you read the book” in Japanese.  See the spelling in kana and you can pronounce it.

Of course, it isn’t quite that easy. There are long and short vowels, double consonants, and silent characters.  And within Japan, there are several dialects that sound verydifferent.  The usage cited herein is generally that heard in Tokyo.

VOWELS

There are five vowels in the Japanese language. They are:

Rhymes with
A ah
I tea
U you
E way
O go

Where it says “rhymes with”, you could add “always”. Each of the sounds is said the same way every time.  And each has the same length when speaking.

Vowels can be short or long. Consider the words oki and ookii. In the first case, the sound of o and i are short. If you spoke oki with a metronome, it would take a count of two – o and ki.

o ki

But ookii would take a count of four (two for o, one for ki, one for the final i).

o o ki i

These are totally different words – oki means several different things – one is embers – while ookii means big. Yet the only difference is in their pronunciation – the length of the vowels.

Long vowels are said smoothly, that is, you don’t say o o, you say o- as one sound but held longer. Think of oh and ooh, but with the same sound.

A long vowel is displayed in various ways. With hira gana, the vowel is written two times: いい (ii). The character o is usually written as おう (ou).  With kata kana, a long vowel is followed by a dash: オー (oー). And with Romaji, it is usually written with a bar over each long vowel (o).

The vowels i and u are not always sounded. For instance, the common word desu and common verb ending masu are usually pronounced des’ and mas’ respectively. Similarly, the verb ending mashita is usually pronounced mash’ta.  In each case, although no sound is made, the timing is as if the sound is made, and the mouth should be shaped as if it were making the sound.

 

CONSONANTS

The consonants are K G, S, J, Z, T, D, N, H, B, P, M, Y, R, and W. Note that Y is considered to be a consonant.

Notice also that there is no character for the sound of V, Q, L, or C (except as K). These sounds do not occur in Japanese speaking.

When using foreign words, r is usually used in place of l – thus erebeetaa (elevator)

A sound that is not in English is tsu.  It sounds like the ts in cats.

Most consonants are pronounced the same as in English.  Two exceptions are g and r.  g is pronounced more like ng, as in ring.  ris pronounced more like d – the tongue should touch the roof of the mouth when sounding r.

Consonants may also be stretched, but differently from vowels. With kana, a small tsu character indicates that the following consonant should be stretched: がこう (gakkou) in hira gana,コー in kata kana. With Romaji, printing the letter twice indicates that it is stretched: gakkou.

ga ko u

Some words are spelled with alternate characters for ease of speech. These are the sounds represented with the tenten (”) or maru (o) in kana. They are

Can be spelled with Examples
K G kawa/gawa (river)
S Z sake/zake alcohol)
T D da/ta (rice field)
H B hito/bito (person)
H P hon/pon (book)

That is why there is hira gana and kata kana. Gana and kana mean the same thing.

This dissertation is only an introduction – there are many subtle points that a student can study after mastering this much.

Go to Japanese Respect